In recognition of Free Speech Week, the WLF Legal Pulse celebrates what may be the First Amendment’s greatest virtue: it protects speech that may be unpopular due to the nature of the speaker or the medium within which it is spoken. We do so by applauding an October 20 U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruling that addressed a prior restraint on a method of communication that some disfavor—billboards—and that predominantly carries messages some consider unworthy of full constitutional protection—advertisements.
Unbridled regulatory authority. Section 302 of the Massachusetts Code of Regulations requires all outdoor advertisers to obtain both an operating license and a permit for each specific sign. The regulation vests the Director of the Office of Outdoor Advertising (“Director”) with broad discretion to grant, withhold, or revoke licenses and permits for billboards. Section 302 enumerates several factors that the Director “may” consider, including “health, safety, and general welfare” and “not [being] in harmony with the surrounding area.” The regulation, however, states the listed factors are non-exclusive and that the Director’s authority is “[w]ithout limitation.”
Van Wagner Communications, which lobbied against the 2012 amendments to Section 302, filed a facial challenge to the regulation in federal court, arguing that it imposed an unconstitutional prior restraint on the company’s speech. The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts held that because the Director had approved Van Wagner’s license and all 70 of its permit requests over two years, the company suffered no injury and thus lacked standing to sue. Continue reading